The one-hour sessions used the backdrop of a crime scene to explore science through different forms of forensic evidence with children aged between 8 and 12, who were educated at home as opposed to attending schools. The set-up was simple: the theft of some very valuable artefacts had taken place in one of the Thinktank labs and the children had to find different bits of evidence scattered around the crime-scene – (fake) blood smears, fingerprints, fibres, shoe impressions and a piece of gum, then analyse the evidence back in the lab and find the culprit.
The session was run by three Thinktank facilitators and I was invited along as a ‘proper scientist’ to be on hand to answer questions about what it’s like to work in science, and to help out. I was a little nervous, not having a forensic science background, but my undergraduate biology lectures came flooding back and got me through some of the trickier questions.
The children were given 5 minutes to find all the clues in the crime-scene before coming back to the lab to hear about the different types of evidence and analytical methods used. The analysis part of the session was fairly unstructured, deliberately mimicking the more free, self-paced learning that home educated children may be more used to. Despite the relative free-for-all, it worked very well – the children were really excited about analysing as much of the different evidence as possible.
Making things hands-on was really important. Working with real individual microscopes was a deliberate decision by the faciliators as it gained the children’s interest. The fingerprinting was by far the most fun exercise, both to do and to talk about, as it was the most interactive – and in the words of one of the very excitable kids “really weird and cool”. I got to take over some of the duties on that particular station and talk about the fascinating fact that koala bear fingerprints are very similar to human ones! The fingerprinting, and working with microscopes, was definitely the most popular. I noticed that most of the children and parents skipped the most abstract workstation, which involved trying to match DNA sequences, something I’ll bear in mind for future STEM stuff where I might be more involved in the planning.
During the short talks explaining the science behind each of the bits of evidence the children had gathered, I got to take a step back and watch some real science communication in action. I’ve talked to classes of children about science before, but the lead facilitator had a PGCE and her skill and experience of working with children really showed. I was interested in how she engaged the group, maintained their interest and made them feel involved, always making sure that the super-keen kids didn’t hog the Q&A sections by switching between different tables, discussing the more difficult stuff in smaller, more manageable groups and always being positive whatever the answer thrown back at her. It was my STEM training in action and I really did learn a lot from just observing the facilitator and the children’s reactions. It was also fun trying to watch some of the over-eager parents suppressing the urge to blurt out the answers!
In between sessions I got to talk to the facilitators about how they run and organise the sessions. Although ‘scripts’ for explaining the workshops and the science were written beforehand, their development appeared to be very much an on-the-job task, with the need to adjust the tone and content of the talk to suit the age/size of the groups andrefining the explanations for each new session. I learned that the most effective way to talk to a room of mixed ability children aged from 8 to 12 about something as complex as antibodies and antigens and how they are related to different blood types, without confusing or patronising them, is to pitch a carefully gauged, very general talk, so that you then have the flexibility to later provide more detailed information, or simpler explanations, to smaller, more manageable groups.
Truth be told, I didn’t actually field many questions about my job as a neuroscientist, and the ones I were asked came from parents who were interested in what I generally do. I spent most of my time helping the children (and parents) through the exercises and explaining the science behind it. I did meet one very interested parent, whose daughter is dyslexic. She threw me with talk of processing speed, which is the very thing I am working on at the moment, and it made me appreciate that parents who educate their children at home must take a particularly keen interest in some of the more technical aspects of their child’s behaviour and learning potential. I swapped details with her and have sent her some information about some of the work we do at Aston with children with dyslexia and the study I am currently recruiting participants for, which looks at processing speed and co-morbity (overlap of symptoms and disorders in children with developmental difficulties). Home educating your child(ren) must make it harder to come across opportunities to take part in research studies, and from my end of things, home educated children are definitively a neglected population, which is a real shame because many of these children are educated at home precisely because they have the kinds of developmental difficulties that I’m interested in.
As an unexpected treat, I got to watch the Big Bang Show, a series of home-brew experiments held in the Thinktank theatre, that I would highly recommend catching. Whilst computer goblins didn’t always want it to happen, one of the additional fun factors was the chance for the audience to choose which experiments to they wished to see demonstrated with little number pads; the ones involving fire, of course, won each time.
There was Harry Potter’s potion, a bubbling tube of colour changing liquid, which was later explained as a mixture of water, universal indicator and strong alkali (caustic soda) to change the solution purple and then blocks of dry ice. The reaction was pretty impressive.
The titular big bang was an experiment demonstrating the power of air pressure. Liquid nitrogen was poured into an old 2-litre plastic bottle of Fanta (‘giving off a nice orangey smell’). Over the course of 15 seconds, the 100mls of liquid nitrogen heated and expanded to hundreds of times its original volume, causing the bottle to explode with an almighty bang!
For my first real STEM event I don’t think it could have gone better. I had just as much fun as the children and l definitely learned a lot, both about blood-typing and effective science communication. If I didn’t enjoy my job so much, I might just say that I was a little jealous of the folk at Thinktank who get to have that kind of fun day in, day out!